My Roundabout
Front & Center
Lisa Loomer Sidebar: Diagnosing ADD

Playwright Lisa Loomer followed a roundabout path to Roundabout, where her play Distracted has its New York premier at the Laura Pels Theatre this winter. Call it coincidence or serendipity, but she first wrote for the theatre in 1981, in an acting class at the old American Place, now the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center. A budding actor and standup comic, Loomer brought in a clutch of monologues under an assumed name. One day, acting coach Wynn Handman asked, “Okay, Lisa, who is writing these?” She had to confess.

    “Then Wynn gave me space to perform them, along with another actress. It was a collaborative piece called A Crowd of Two,” recalls Loomer. “That space is now the Black Box Theatre in the Steinberg Center, so I haven't really gone all that far—just upstairs.”

    The truth is that Loomer has gone far. Today, she is one of America's most heralded and consistently funny playwrights, tackling complex, socially engaged questions with compassion, sharp-edged perception and plenty of pointed humor. Her plays have won numerous awards, including the Susan Smith Blackburn Prize, the American Theatre Critics New Play Award, and the Charles MacArthur Award for Outstanding New Play. Her 1994 effort The Waiting Room, an ambitious comedy about three women from different time periods and places awaiting a modern doctor to change their bodies to fit male notions of beauty. She also wrote the screenplay for the award-winning film Girl, Interrupted (1999). More recently, Loomer's 2003 drama about class, race, and nannies in liberal America, premiered at the Mark Taper Forum and was produced at Second Stage in New York.

    Distracted centers on the story of a family dealing with a child who may or may not have attention deficit disorder (add)—more accurately known as attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ad/hd) It's a very tall order that Loomer's set for herself—to write a comedy that wrestles with agonizingly personal questions while pondering the larger society that's reeling in its own add world of sensory overload. Have we been stricken by the side effects of a madly multitasked existence? Front & Center tried to find some answers via a phone call to the playwright in Seattle.

FRONT AND CENTER: Considering all the different plays you write, do you start with a similar process?

LISA LOOMER: The starting place often has to do with a question, something that is bothering me. In this case, it was “What's add in an add world?”

Can you tell me how you landed on the title of the play?

We can all relate to being “distracted,” whether or not we have “Attention Deficit Disorder.” I was also intrigued by the opposite of being “distracted,” which, for me, has to do with “attention”—with people being present for each other.

There's a very funny bit where an actor confesses he has ad/hd. It's a very meta-theatrical, Pirandello moment.

The character just said it, and I wrote it down. I said, “How perfect.” Any play about add worth its credentials has to break the fourth wall.

Where do you think your comic ability stems from? Are you a naturally funny writer?

I see the world skewed—can't help it. It was probably something they put in my cereal as a child.

Your writing displays a strong political awareness. I wonder if it comes from your own or if some of it came from your family?

My mother may have been discussing politics while putting something in my cereal. She was a political animal who moved us to Mexico when I was still fairly young and impressionable.

In several plays you've written, you focus on the plight of women.

I can only write about what compels me, some of which has to do with “the plight of women,” and some not. Whenever I have taught, I've suggested that young writers trust that they will write what
they have to write, and other writers will write what they have to write. So just get to work.

What compelled you to write a play about add?

I kept seeing kids labeled or diagnosed with add. I also have adult people in my life with add. You open the newspaper and read about the increasing use of medications for children. I'd hear from friends, “Oh, that's so add of me!” I started to wonder, “What's add in an add world?” After all, we'll never go through this phone interview without someone beeping one of us, without hearing the “ding” for an e-mail.

    I'd hear a report on the radio about how the new technology was changing our brains for the better, and another report on how it's killing us. add is a very provocative issue. Who does the labeling? Why is 82 percent of the stimulant medication in the world used in America? What's going on with our culture and with our kids?

How much research you do?

If you look in my closet, I have probably 25 books on add. No two of them agree with each other—which is why it's such a good subject for drama. Even the studies contradict each other. Part of the writing involved figuring out which study could be used to contradict the other.

    I also read the newspapers. I talk to people extensively. A lot of my work is trying to relay to the audience the feelings of the people who have these extremely different points of view.

Did the idea of incorporating video into the play come about as you developed the play or was it added later into the stage directions?

The video aspect came as I was writing the first draft. We live in a world of screens. I wanted those screens to vie for the audience's attention as they vie for the characters' attention. It's a world of screens that is designed to evoke our add world. What's been fascinating is finding the balance between giving a sense of an add world and not giving the audiences add.

A feeling I get (again, this point is very meta-theatrical) is that an add play would be entirely disjointed if the actors weren't able to deliver the text so ably.

It could be. A phrase that kept coming into my mind as I was writing it was “The center does not hold.” I think that's the sense of an add world—the center does not hold.

    Depending on the makeup of the audience, it's a very different experience (in terms of the use of video). I've actually had conversations with an audience of younger people who have said, “Bring it on. Give me more.” They love the video.

My own sense of Distracted is that it is an issue play: it tackles a subject. But the play also grapples with the playful form that “distraction” might take. It's a theatrical gesture.

I don't think of it as an “issue play”—it's about a family's journey within a social context, driven by a mother's quest to help her child. God knows, the child's not the only one with an “issue.” Dad's got one, Mama's got one, the neighbors and the shrinks have them. The whole society is distracted. And, yes, you're right in seeing that the form needed to follow or evoke the subject matter. If it were only an issue play, the audience would be merely observing. My experience in talking to audience members is that they see themselves in the play. They see their kids or their friends or their parents. Lord knows what this says about us as a society. I may be inspired by “issues” initially, but I am moved by human stories, and it is human behavior that makes me laugh or cry. I'm interested in provoking thought. I'm happy when people argue in the parking lot after a show or stop me on the street to talk about the play. But the “issue” has to get to the heart.

The only factor becoming scarce in a world of abundance is human attention.
–Kevin Kelly, Wired magazine

Mama struggles to face the consequences of the decisions she might make for her child. This is made terrible by the reality that a lot of high-end drugs today really don't fix the problem.

Yes. I'm interested in how science and medicine—how all these new choices we have—impact our lives. I'm curious about how they're changing us, about what is gained and what is lost. There is a Chinese saying (or curse): “May you be born in interesting times.” I feel I was born in very interesting times! Maybe all writers feel that way. With Distracted, I wondered if, in our increasingly information-rich world, we were becoming, well, distracted from what was truly important. With this play I'm asking, “Okay, let's take a moment out of our busy lives and consider the dark.”

Randy Gener, the senior editor of American Theatre magazine, is the author of Love Seats for Virginia Woolf and other plays. He is the 2007–08 winner of the George Jean Nathan Award for dramatic criticism.

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